2Inspire Interview Series

Andy Brice
Andy Brice
Shareware Industry Awards Foundation

In the fourth issue of Avangate Digest, we had the pleasure to talk to Andy Brice, a UK-based software developer with over twenty years of professional experience and the owner of Oryx Digital, a software company which sells shrink-wrap software and provides consulting to other software companies. He launched Oryx Digital with PerfectTablePlan, desktop software for doing table/seating plans for wedding receptions, corporate events, charity dinners etc.

Adriana Iordan: Can you tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you came to found Oryx Digital? What is PerfectTablePlan?

Andy Brice: I have been interested in computers since I was 12. I started programming in BASIC on a BBC Micro my grandmother bought for our family. I did a degree in physics with the vague intention of becoming a theoretical physicist or an oceanographer, but I became more interested in programming.

I spent twenty years doing software development in 5 different companies for: paper-mill scheduling, satellite image processing, printed circuit board design, environmental and process modeling and Internet-based distributed systems. As well as programming, I got involved in every aspect of bespoke and shrink-wrap software development, including gathering requirements, design, QA, documentation, sales, marketing, PR, project management and process improvement.

I got married in 2004. To help out with the planning I offered to do the table plan for the reception. Table planning sounds rather trivial, until you actually have to do it. It was a nightmare, even with only 60 guests and no family feuds or divorces to take account of! I searched the Internet for software to help, but I was rather underwhelmed with what I found.

I was made redundant from my .com job at the end of 2004. I had had enough of working for other people and decided it was time for a new challenge. I set up Oryx Digital at the start of 2005 with the intention of writing shrink-wrap software, providing consulting to software development companies and perhaps selling some of my photographs. I released the first version of PerfectTablePlan later that year and have been working on it continuously since.

PerfectTablePlan is a complete solution for planning any event that involves assigning guests to seats. It allows you to manage your guest list (RSVPs, meal preferences etc), specify who to sit together (or apart), experiment with table layouts, assign guests to seats (using drag and drop or automatic assignment), prints plans, charts and place cards and lots more besides. It is available for both Windows and MacOSX.

PerfectTablePlan is of particular interest to me because it combines my interests in usability, visualization, optimization and cross-platform development. The mathematics of automatically assigning guests to seats is quite daunting as there are more ways to seat 60 guests than there are atoms in the universe. But PerfectTablePlan's genetic algorithm can produce a near optimal seating assignment for 100 guests in less than 30 seconds on a modest PC.

I had initially thought PerfectTablePlan would be a pretty much complete feature in 18 months and I would then start on a second product. Two and half years in and there are still loads of features I want to add to it and lots more to do on the marketing side.

What works/fails for my market might turn out completely different for yours. You just have to keep trying things and measuring the results as best you can.

Adriana Iordan: This year you have started your blog. What was so far the impact on your business?

Andy Brice: According to my cookie tracking, the blog has sold one sole copy of PerfectTablePlan! But I didn't start www.successfulsoftware.net to promote PerfectTablePlan.

I have really benefited from reading other blogs, especially those by Eric Sink and Joel Spolsky . I have also benefited hugely from the communities on the Business of Software forum and, more recently, from the ASP forums . I wanted to contribute back in some small way. Also, I am quite opinionated and it's nice to be able to sound off about things when you feel like it.

Writing is a skill, like programming, and you need to do a lot of it to be any good. I used to write articles for software magazines, but a blog gives you more control. The downside is that you don't get paid per article. But, like everyone else who writes a blog, I also hope to benefit in some way from my hard work. One day I would like to provide a consulting service to help other software companies, large and small, create successful products and it might be a useful promotional tool for that side of my business. I also have a long term ambition to write a book and the blog could provide material for the book.

Adriana Iordan: On your blog you have listed 24 ways to promote a software product, an article in 4 parts. What are the 3 "marketing outlets" you found most useful in leading to conversions (with regard to the ROI) of your software product?

Andy Brice: The article made it to 6 parts by the time I finished it. When I started out, I assumed that the only way I could sell decent volumes was through stores and resellers. That hasn't turned out to be the case at all. I sell the vast majority of licences direct to customers.

The things that have consistently yielded a good return on investment for me are SEO (search engine optimization), Google Adwords and word of mouth recommendations from my customers. I haven't done anything clever or devious for SEO. I just paid attention to page names, titles, alt tags etc. It's taken me a lot of time to learn how to work Google Adwords to my advantage and it is a continually moving target. But it can be very cost effective and give you some great feedback for SEO. I have had less success with Yahoo and Microsoft Pay per Click. Word of mouth recommendations come from providing a good product and going the extra mile to support it. All of these things take time.

There are lots of things that go towards making software usable. But the key thing is that it is obvious what to do and how to do it at each stage.

Adriana Iordan: Were there any outlets that you found to be a waste of time/money?

Andy Brice: The results of print ads in wedding magazines (as far as I can tell) and affiliates have been particularly disappointing so far. Download sites also don't work well for me - most of my customers have never even heard of Tucows or Download.com . I would advise others to concentrate their efforts on SEO and Adwords beforehand. Start with a small daily budget for Adwords if you don't want to learn the hard way. Also, no matter how good your marketing may be, you still need to have a great product and great support.

Of course, what works/fails for my market might turn out completely different for yours. You just have to keep trying things and measuring the results as best you can.

Adriana Iordan: How did you decide on PerfectTablePlan's regular price - $34.95?

Andy Brice: I asked lots of friends and acquaintances what they thought a reasonable price would be for PerfectTablePlan. The feedback I got was that anything under £ 20 would be an impulse purchase. I also looked at prices of competitors. I started at £17.95 and raised it to £19.95 as I added more features. $34.95 was roughly equal to £19.95 when I set the dollar price. It wasn't a very scientific process.

Adriana Iordan: What does usability mean to you?

Andy Brice: My customers not having to read the documentation I spent ages writing. There are lots of things that go towards making software usable. But the key thing is that it is obvious what to do and how to do it at each stage. This is particularly important for PerfectTablePlan as many of the customers only use the software once (for their wedding) and many of them aren't very technical.

Usability is important not just in terms of a user experience, but also in reducing the support burden. I look on each support request as a potential usability improvement. If a question gets asked once, it could be the customer having a bad day. But if the same question gets asked a second time then I try to think of a way to improve the software so that it doesn't get asked a third time.

Adriana Iordan: Was there a moment you thought you should have given up and closed Oryx Digital? What did you do when you didn't have any clients?

The things that have consistently yielded a good return on investment for me are SEO (search engine optimization), Google Adwords and word of mouth recommendations from my customers.

Andy Brice: The other table planner products I looked at, seemed rather moribund and I really wasn't sure if there was much of a market for table planners. But I sold my first license through a wedding website within 48 hours of the first release. That was a huge relief.

There have been stressful moments though. For example, when a supplier printed a whole batch of CD inserts incorrectly and the time a wedding magazine displayed a PerfectTablePlan CD with a valid license key clearly visible.

I also managed to get a detached retina and broken nose during martial arts sparring just as I was setting up Oryx Digital. That wasn't a great start. Having a very supportive wife, family and friends has been very important.

Adriana Iordan: What would you say, were the mistakes you have done, related to your software and business?

Andy Brice: Too many to list! Thankfully none of them have been serious mistakes, so far. The founder of Honda once said "Success is 99% failure". He was probably an optimist.

Adriana Iordan: Avangate is an ecommerce platform for electronic software distribution. Can you tell us, from your point of view, what are the most important aspects the ISVs need to take into account when looking at a shareware registration service?

Andy Brice: In roughly decreasing order of importance:

  • reliable
  • easy for the customer to use
  • low cost
  • good fraud protection with minimal false positives
  • accepts multiple currencies
  • pays the vendor promptly
  • easy for the vendor to integrate/manage
  • extras (coupon codes, purchase order processing, affiliates etc)

I would always recommend that ISVs have more than one ecommerce provider, so they can give customers a choice. It also protects the ISV if one provider has server problems, which does happen. I understand from forums that some of the ecommerce providers (giving no names, but I don't mean Avangate) try and upsell all sorts of dodgy deals to ISV's customers. To me, this is totally unacceptable.

Adriana Iordan: From your experience, what are the common problems the software vendors face today?

Andy Brice: Being noticed and staying ahead of the competition. It doesn't matter how great your product is if no-one ever hears about you, so don't skimp on the marketing. Even in my little niche I have at least 8 direct competitors and at least another 40 products with some overlap. I have to keep working hard to stay ahead. But I have lots of stamina and no shortage of ideas.

Adriana Iordan: Is there a piece of advice would you like to offer a software author starting their business?

Andy Brice: Every person is different. Every market is different. What works for other people or in other markets may not work for you. Beware of 'one size fits all' advice. There is too much else to put here. You'll have to read my blog!

Adriana Iordan: Thank you for your time, Andy!

Published date: July 04, 2007
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